by Kate McCorkle

070We are in the prescription drop-off line at CVS, which, after 6 p.m. on a weekday, is several people deep. My eight-year-old, Lizzie, has a severe ear infection. She is stoic and in extreme pain. The mean pharmacist is behind the counter. I once left the line to chase a kid, and she sent me to the back of the queue. At two, Sadie—the runner—is buckled into a cart and not happy. She’s threatening to jump. The six- and four-year-old boys, Jack and Teddy, are fidgety. We haven’t had dinner.

Lizzie says she’s going to throw up—the pain is that bad. I point her toward the employee bathroom at the other end of the pharmacy. She runs over, then refuses to enter the “employees only” door. With panic in her eyes, she does a stutter-step, then pukes beside the prescription pick-up line. I run to her, fearing I lost my place in the drop-off queue. Lizzie is embarrassed and we have nothing to clean up the mess. A lady in the drop-off line starts yelling. Sadie is trying to vault from the cart. I run to her, push her down, and yell at the boys for donning prescription sunglasses to sword-fight with canes. The woman in line offers to keep an eye on Sadie, raising a baby carrier in her hand as evidence of trustworthiness. “She’s a jumper!” I yell, running back to Lizzie. By now a manager has arrived, and CVS has sold untold quantities of hand sanitizer. I state the obvious: “My daughter threw up.”

The manager looks at me. “What do you want me to do?” she asks.

“I could use some paper towels,” I say.

When the manager leaves, I sprint to the drop-off line. The pharmacist scowls as I throw her the script. I grab my sword fighters, hiss you are being bad, and place them in chairs near the pick-up area. I park the cart beside them; Sadie is wailing, clawing at the buckle. Jack is upset, both for the reprimand and because Sadie is distressed. While I clean Lizzie and mop her throw-up, the boys attempt to liberate their younger sister.

Lizzie looks completely pathetic. She sits between Jack and Teddy, holding a cardboard box of foul towels and Clorox wipes. Sadie is howling in earnest because the boys have abandoned her to comfort their older sister. I give her my phone so she can look at photos. The older kids whine, “That’s not fair! We never get your phone!” To complete the picture: I had already changed into my comfy clothes when we rushed to the pediatrician at 5 p.m. My sweatpants have holes and I’m wearing slippers. Lizzie is wearing pajamas.

The entire pick-up line lets us cut in front when my name is called for the prescription. A teacher from Teddy’s nursery school is next in line. A grandmother now, she has nine children herself. I thank God that of all the people I could run into, she is the one I see in line. I know she gets it. I buy fast-food dinner on the way home. We start eating after their regular bedtimes.

Most days I don’t mind the chaos. I like my family. I appreciate our security and stability. My crazy is juggling the care of four young children with a professional and personal life. It’s not the crazy of having a court order on a legal guardian or not knowing where our next meal is coming from. I live with the absurdity of attempting to control any aspect of this circus and the certainty that, at any given moment, my spinning plates will wobble, topple, and shatter.

The children need things I cannot give. Not material things—intangibles, the whole enrichment umbrella. I tell myself the kids each have a higher power and it isn’t me; yet, when overwhelmed, I cannot shake the feeling I am always failing someone, physically or emotionally. I can’t split myself four ways—six if you count a piece for my husband and a sliver for myself. I wonder whether an introvert can be a decent parent. What if I need to recharge by being alone, yet I am never alone?

When I’ve confessed to this feeling, friends have suggested yoga, daily meditation, a manicure, chocolate. Perhaps all four at once. You need to take care of yourself, they insist. Put you at the top of the list. Get pampered once in a while. Yeah, right.

What I want, what I crave, in these moments of feeling useless and used up is to go crabbing.

I want my ankles stuck in a sucking tide pool.

Shadows dart in shallow muddy water, pools reeking of low tide; parched grasses scratch rather than offer relief. My younger brother and I park our bikes by the guardrail on the single-lane road and pick our way through the marsh. I recall the year, trailing after my father, he sidestepped a puddle and said to jump; I jumped, landing in brackish funk up to my armpits. My brother and I weave carefully to a spot where spongy land finally succumbs to water. One of us has a banged-up net and the other has a cooler holding chicken necks wrapped in twine and anchored by weights. I probably have a book and he doesn’t. I don’t understand how he can crab without a book, but he doesn’t know why I bring one since we end up talking most of the time. Nothing big. Just dumb brother-sister stuff, like Monty Python skits or complaining about our parents.

It’s buggy. The water is still. Neither tourists nor breeze disturb the shallows around this South Jersey marsh. It’s not scenic as much as it is desolate and primitive. Amphibians were born here.

We plop veiny chicken-neck lures into the water, watch ripples disturb long-legged skimmers, eager for a crab to tug on the line. If we’re lucky, we’ve found some of the logs or short wooden walls that dot the marsh like fossils from a prehistoric boardwalk. I don’t know what these structures are or why they were built; my brother speculates they’re connected to the sewer somehow. They’re good for sitting or leaning on. I prefer my jurassic boardwalk idea.

We wait. Crabs are slow. Mosquitos and bottle flies are not. In the heat, water and turf blur into hazy ribbons of blue and algae green. I’m jealous my brother can pee outside. I get thirsty but I don’t drink much because I don’t share his efficiency. He laughs, insisting that I can too pee outside; it’s just biologically more awkward. I tell him he means physiologically. But all the same, I’m jealous.

A line becomes taut. Hand over hand, wrists move to reel the twine. One poises the net near the surface. We lean over the water, focused on the pale blob materializing below—no claws attached to soggy chicken neck. Sighing, we toss the bait far into the pool, hoping this time we’re right over the crab family’s hidey-hole.

We never catch much. One year we go out on the bay in a pontoon boat with a family friend and net bushels of glorious blue claws. I shouldn’t compare our meager lines around Corson’s Inlet to that trip but I do. We’ve never caught more than six between the two of us—at least the ones we could keep. There will be some shockingly ugly, inedible spider crabs and babies you have to throw back. Some we’d catch molting, vulnerable shell-less or soft-shell crabs leaving one body behind for another. Epicureans prize them, but we never kept the molting ones, defenseless as they are.

My brother and I, naturally pale, bike home burned and blistered, reeking of raw chicken, sweat, and the brackish swamp. I’ve gotten sun poisoning more than once while crabbing, forgoing a hat in a vain attempt to get tan. Once home, dizzy and lightheaded, my body aches for water. I think we only ever cooked the crabs once. We never caught enough for the whole family. If I remember correctly, the one time we ate our own catch, the crabs tasted muddy. I knew I was eating a scavenger.

I tell other people crabbing’s not really fun. It’s not like splashing in the ocean or playing paddleball on the beach or riding a roller coaster on the boardwalk. Time stops and the imagination wanders. It’s good to be here with another person, to be alone together. But it’s not fun. I need to be clear about this, because as much as I want to go crabbing, as eager as I am whenever near water, people think it must be fun.

They would be disappointed.

You have to slow your breathing; adjust your eyes. Amphibians were born here.

* * *

            Two summers ago my little family went to a different beach with our extended family. Prior to our trip my brother-in-law e-mailed, saying he was looking forward to chasing some crabs at night. I replied that I had never gone crabbing at night before, but I was sure the crabs would taste just as good. I’d bring the Old Bay.

I later learned he and his wife were slightly appalled by my response. He didn’t want to eat the crabs. He just wanted to chase them. Eating them is barbaric. Yet apparently chasing them is civilized. I also wondered how one chased an aquatic animal.

Once we arrived at the Outer Banks, however, his dismay clarified. Apparently this beach is populated by ghost crabs, tiny, translucent crustaceans dwelling in the sand, and not home to my more familiar blue claws swimming in the bay. My brother-in-law wanted to chase ghost crabs. You went out after dark with flashlights trained to the ground, hoping to spy one scuttling from its burrow.

Our group set out one night, six children and six adults armed with flashlights and pails. Lizzie had recently turned seven. She was the only one quick and brave enough to corral the angry crabs with her bare feet, pluck them from the sand, and drop them in her beach bucket. At adventure’s end she tipped the pail, releasing the ghosts from their plastic prison. No, of course you would not eat these crabs. The biggest ones were about the size of your thumb.

But this wasn’t crabbing. There was far too much shrieking and running. There was flash photography. It was fun in a wild, spasmodic way, careening after shadows on the beach, pivoting and fleeing the instant the pinching crabs doubled back, brandishing a claw bigger than their body at your toes. Haggard, sandy children welcomed sleep.

Later that week I brought my family to a section of Carrituck Sound that permitted fishing and crabbing. I had taken Lizzie to a bait shop early that morning to purchase a net, string, and weights. We walked to the grocery store next door for turkey necks, then returned to the beach house for the rest of our family.

On a cool, hazy morning, the three older kids unfolded beach chairs along decking that surrounded an inlet. My husband alternately chased and carried Sadie—then six months old—around a grassy field, keeping her well away from the dark water. The older kids were excited by the potential of the shiny green net. They were excited to find sticks that would become handles for the baited twine. They were excited I allowed them Twizzlers before lunch. After those initial five minutes, the tedium set in.

No one caught anything. There wasn’t even the illusion or phantom pull of something on the line. Teddy, then two, continually swung his so violently he lost three weights. A group farther along the decking was laughing and carrying on. They had a large cooler, empties scattered around their chairs. They were having a grand old time sans crabs. The kids grumbled, not understanding their enthusiasm.

After twenty minutes we decided to try a different spot away from the decking. We set up beneath a small bridge spanning the inlet where it departs from the Sound. The kids found several snakeskins woven into rocks and reeds. That—and the Twizzlers—was the highlight of crabbing. We returned to the beach house, waves of hand sanitizer announcing our arrival before we crossed the door. The rest of the family, recently awakened and now spread across the sectional couch with cereal bowls, wondered why I had wasted our morning.

The kids were probably too young for crabbing. For real crabbing. But I don’t think our morning was a waste. We did something together, even if the experience was one of tedium. Slowing yourself takes practice when patience is counterintuitive. Waiting has become a lost art. Most adults cannot bear it—flashing devices the second we must wait: in line, for the train, for another person. What are we so afraid of? Why is that empty space terrifying? Being alone with one’s self, even with others, requires a certain level of learned tolerance.

I want my kids introduced to stillness, even if—as they grow into young adults—they ultimately decide not to become friends. I want them to know that despite the world’s battery of distractions, it exists. But you need to practice; you need to cultivate the ability to endure yourself. Our wasted morning is a start.

I want to go back to before. When there were words and silences and stillness, when there was all the time in the world to raise a baited string, hand over hand, in anticipation of a blue claw. As smothering heat and mosquitoes create an eternal present, we’ll remember the time before we were.

I need to convince my kids it’s not gross to handle chicken necks.



Category: Fiction, Short Story